Belga Café | Washington DC
Bart Vandaele’s favorite playground has always been
the kitchen. As a toddler in his family’s restaurant in Belgium,
pots and pans were his toys. At only 12, Vandaele enrolled at the
Culinary Institute for Restaurant and Hotel Management in Bruges,
Belgium, where he embarked on a six year program of academics and
culinary externships in both cuisine and pastry at Michelin-starred
After completing his formal education, Vandaele
spent a year at the Zeebrugge Naval Base working as a line cook
at the officer’s kitchen before taking on a commis chef position
at the one Michelin starred Piet Huysentruyt in Wortegem-Petegem,
Belgium. After three years of work under Chef Huysentruty, Vandaele
was moved up to Second Chef, responsible for the kitchen in the
chef’s absence and teaching cooking classes. He held the position
for three years before moving to two Michelin-starred Restaurant
Scholteshof in Hasselt where he held a Sous Chef position for
a year under the renowned Roger Souvereyns. Vandaele’s restaurant
experience took a turn when he became the Executive Chef for the
Head of Delegation of the European Commission to the United States
in Belgium, which led to his next Executive Chef position at the
Royal Dutch Embassy. During his six years at the embassies, Vandaele
created a daily changing menu and organized luxurious lunch and
dinner parties for senators, governors, ambassadors, and lobbyists.
During a stroll around the Eastern Market neighborhood of DC in
2003, Vandaele saw an empty retail space that felt right for his
next venture. With a Belgian design team, Vandaele oversaw the compltete
gutting and redesign of the space to suit his Belgian roots. As
Executive Chef of Belga Cafe in DC, Vandaele acts as a
Belgian culinary ambassador, using American and Asian ingredients
to build dishes that celebrate the rich history of Belgian cuisine
and beer. His Endive Sushi begins with the boiling of the classic
Belgian vegetable in nutmeg and curry-scented water. The endive
is marinated, wrapped in Prosciutto di Parma and served with an
orange-cardomom gelee and tobeko.
AB: Did you attend culinary
school? Why or why not? Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring
chefs today? Do you only hire chefs with culinary school backgrounds?
BV: I always knew exactly what
I wanted to do in life. I attended culinary school from 12-18 years
old in Bruges, Belgium. I would definitely recommend a culinary
school in Europe – you learn the whole package of the restaurant
business: wine tasting, bar menus, and cooking. But you are not
a chef until you run a kitchen. I finally became a chef at 28! In
my kitchen, I don’t require training – just heart and
balls. Cooks are here to learn, not just take a paycheck.
AB: Who are
your mentors? What are some of the most important things you’ve
learned from them?
BV: My Dad laid down a foundation
for me and taught me the basics of how to run big events realistically.
Piet Huysentruyt taught me about real Belgian cooking, living on
the edge, trying new dishes, and the importance of knowing basic
techniques. Roger Souvereyns had a very down-to-earth approach,
a vision about everything in the restaurant. He owns an herb garden
with five gardeners!
AB: What is your philosophy
on food and dining?
BV: I want to give back and
teach the diners something. Sometimes I cook what I like, sometimes
I cook what my diners like and sometimes I experiment. That is the
fun part of being a chef and owner: it’s like inviting people
into your living room. Unfortunately, you have to charge them!
AB: Are there any secret ingredients
that you especially like? Why?
BV: Love, heart, and soul.
I use speculaas which is a Belgian mix of gingerbread-like spices.
I use it in cookies, sauces, or as a dust for duck. I also like
to use Sirop De Liege, a syrup made from apples, pears and dates.
I use it on bread, cheese, pancakes, waffles, sabayon, and ice cream.
I love the rich flavor it imparts.
AB: What flavor combinations
do you favor?
BV: I like sweet and sour together
and I like a contrast of textures like soft and crunchy. Opposites
attract and they fill in the gaps. I like to create two sauces instead
of one. For example, with red wine sauce, I break it down into two
AB: What is your most indispensable
kitchen tool? Why?
BV: A spoon, a rubber spatula,
a knife and a good cutting board.
AB:Is there a culinary technique
that you have either created or use in an unusual way? Please describe.
BV: I poach fish in beer, which
makes it incredibly flavorful. I’ve rediscovered confit; it’s
such a perfect, gentle method of cooking. I also like to smoke things
like pasta and foie gras.
AB: What is
your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential
new line cook?
BV: Why do you want to come
and cook for me?
AB: What tips
would you offer young chefs just getting started?
BV: Go get trained in Europe.
You must have so much love for the job, because you’re going
to have to work a lot. You have to love food and drinks, learning
and people – especially those who support you.
AB: What are
your favorite cookbooks?
BV: I really like Nobu
AB: What cities do you like
for culinary travel?
BV: Las Vegas, New York, D.C.,
and Chicago. Daniel in New York is amazing and Senso in Las Vegas
AB: What are
your favorite restaurants –off the beaten path – in
BV: Zaytinya, because
Mediterranean is something I don’t know how to cook and Citronelle
is always amazing.
AB: What trends
do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
BV: I think “back to
earth” is a trend. People have discovered that vegetables
grow in the earth, and they are more and more informed about products
and what is in season! On the other hand, the culinary world has
gone mad – chefs think they’re Albert Einstein. Good
techniques are evolving but it may go too far. It’s fun, they’re
driving others to create interesting things, but we should be careful
not to go too far.
do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years?
BV: I see myself involved in
more restaurants in D.C and maybe other locales as well. I really
want to focus on Belgian cuisine in a “home-style” environment.
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